This week’s review is of another book I finished recently and that is a daring and controversial entry into the world of religious debate. Let me say right off that I’m an ardent fan of Philip Pullman and his revelatory, breathtakingly original series His Dark Materials. In this trilogy of young adult novels, Pullman uses an exciting adventure-and-fantasy story to put forward a powerful argument about the poisonous corruption of organized religion, most notably the Catholic church. Needless to say, this was a controversial and somewhat scandalous story, with its elements including the death of God, homosexual angels, young love, and other touchy subjects! But if you are interested in a critical and probing look at the effect of organized religion in our lives, His Dark Materials is unmissable.
All this is a long lead-up to Pullman’s latest, deeply interesting work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Pullman’s medium is fantasy; he uses fictions and re-imaginings of old stories to espouse daring truths. In this novel, he is reimagining the New Testament itself. One of the more compelling critiques of His Dark Materials was that it did not acknowledge the virtues of Christianity, including love and charity, a strong community of believers, and non-violence. These things are present in the teachings of Jesus, but they go hand in hand with more troubling arguments. In this fascinating novel, Pullman tackles the two-faced nature of the Jesus we know by splitting him into two brothers, one eager for peace and revelation, the other bent on uniting humanity under a triumphant new banner. By addressing the different events in Jesus’ life and showing how easily they can become twisted and changed, Pullman writes a novel that is ultimately about how stories themselves are made, and how individuals become legends.
In keeping with his source text, Pullman uses a simple, Biblical style, writing with an archaic rhythm and feeling of antiquity. I always enjoy that religious feeling of timelessness and I found myself reading with great enjoyment about these two mythical brothers, not being hit over the head with arguments on doctrine and faith. When Pullman does step back to analyze, his writing is eloquent and his ideas are hauntingly beautiful. When he describes the religion he wants, he writes of a great branching tree, welcoming to all, with each individual contributing to and supported by the whole. Pair that with his images of the cold high towers and waving war banners of religion as it often is, and it’s enough to make you ache.
You will only find The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ interesting if you already have an interest in and knowledge of the Gospels. But if exploring religions and how they are made is your cup of tea, you won’t want to miss this startling, thoughtful book.